the mercy of God Archbishop of Constantinople
New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch:
unto the entire plentitude of the Church
Grace, Mercy and Peace from Christ our Saviour
together with our prayer, blessing and forgiveness.
Beloved brethren and children in the lord,
Through the grace of the All good God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, we have again this year reached the sacred season of Holy and Great Lent:
Today, on Cheesefare Sunday, we commemorate the exile of the First-formed Adam from the delight of Paradise. Great was the fall. Great was the wound. The image of the Master was shattered. The beauty of the First-formed was dimmed. The intellect of the Forefather was darkened. Nevertheless, it was not entirely destroyed. "Adam sat, and wept before the delight of Paradise beating his hands on his face, and saying (to the Creator and Maker): I am fallen, in thy compassion have mercy on me".
Brethren and dearly beloved children in the Lord,
"All of us have sinned in Adam, erring and failing short of God's glory". We ail feel the weight of our many sins. Therefore, let us listen carefully to the invitation of the Church:
We are called by our Holy Church to enter the arena of virtues with joy and spiritual zeal. We are called to lay aside the indifference at the fallen human nature, and to gird ourselves for intense ascetic struggle. We are to imitate our Forefather not only in the fall, into which we have inevitably followed him, but also in repentance and in tears, and to seek mercy of the loving heavenly Father with a repentant and contrite heart.
Let us not despair because of the multitude of our transgressions. He has taught us about His boundless love for every prodigal son. We are comforted that He first awaits us at the door of Paradise, in order to grant us the former adoption. He only expects from us our voluntary return.
An expression of our desire willingly to return to our Paternal home in love and freedom, is the ascetic struggle for purification from the passions and acquisition of the holy virtues, for the victory over death and enjoyment of the holy Resurrection of the Lord:
However, in order that we may not run in vain, beating the air so to speak, we paternally offer some words of counsel about the character of ascetic struggle in our Orthodox tradition.
Orthodox asceticism, as experienced by our holy Fathers, does not constitute an end in itself, but a means. The end of ascetic struggle is always our purification from the passions, so that we may be rendered receptive of our union in Christ with God, namely our ultimate deification. Asceticism is the way towards deification. Yet it would be a great mistake for us to suppose that our salvation depends on asceticism as such, and not from the grace and boundless mercy of God. According to Saint Diadochos of Photike:
Self-justification, whether expressed as moralism or else as legalism, lies outside the boundaries of Orthodox spiritual life. It signifies a failing away from salvation.
Orthodox asceticism also constitutes an expression of our free cooperation with the divine will. The holy God desires our salvation. However, "like a roaring lion, the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour" (1 Pet. 5:8), and the frail human nature reacts not simply with indifference, indolence and inertia, but often with a clear inclination towards evil. This is why we Christians should freely and continuously practice the holy commandments and direct our will to the All-hoiy will of God, which is our salvation and joy.
Furthermore, Orthodox asceticism is subject to the Canons of the Church, and is never regulated according to the will of the individual. First, the deifying practice of Christ's commandments bares fruit only within the doctrinal and canonical boundaries of our holy Orthodox Church. Secondly, all of us, Clergy and laity, monastics and those living in the world, are trained in the sacred commandments as one body, as one Church. This is why we do not regulate our ascetic life at will, but as the holy and sacred Canons of the Church define and as our spiritual Fathers advise. Through obedience to these, we are able to avoid extremes and defects, which bare serious consequences for the spiritual life. All of us struggle by virtue of the calling in our holy Baptism, but monastics are especially and additionally called through the holy and angelic Schema. This is why monastics stand at the frontiers of this sacred warfare.
Orthodox asceticism does not constitute contempt or hatred towards the human body. The Church has condemned many heresies which introduced such false teachings about asceticism. The hymns of the Triodion teach us that asceticism is a "beginning of compunction and repentance, the riddance of evil, and abstinence from passions". As a wise Elder declares in the sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Moreover, Orthodox asceticism has an eschatological character. The labour of asceticism is mingled with the foretaste of the Resurrection joy and the heavenly kingdom. Ascetic struggle therefore becomes joyful, and ascetic mourning becomes joyful sorrow. At the outset of the Triodion we chant:
The purpose and result of Orthodox asceticism is complete obedience to the will of God. The consequence of such holy obedience is the subordination of our irrational passions to the sanctified dominion of the governing reason, and the subjection of animal nature to the sanctified human person. We experience the tragedy of the manifold rupture of our harmonious relationship with God, with our fellow human beings, with material creation, and with our own selves. Hence the anxiety, the crisis in interpersonal relations, the exploitation of nature, and the reverse threat of nature against us through diverse natural phenomena. Orthodox asceticism aims at healing the above ruptures, to our reception of the reconciliation with God and with the world that is offered by our Lord Jesus Christ, and to our union with each other and with God. The achievement of this is reached through the blessed and exalting humility which, according to Abba Isaac the Syrian, is respected and venerated as a sacred and Christ-like garment by human beings, animals and irrational creation alike, as well as causing fear and trembling to the wicked demons. All asceticism then that harbours vainglory alienates us from God and is harmful.
Again, the hymns warn us, "The wicked one lays traps for the righteous, and plunders them with the ways of vainglory". The final and glorious fruit of sacred Orthodox asceticism is also the crown of virtues, namely love, which is the fulfilment of the law. Every form of asceticism is essentially the result of love towards God, as well as the preparation of further love. Perfect love is the fruit of perfect fulfilment of the sacred commandments.
It is clear that Orthodox asceticism has no connection or relationship with the many contemporary forms of eastern mystical asceticism or western psychosomatic discipline, which aim at self-justification and self-healing. These neither redeem the miserable human person nor achieve his divinization and ontological validation; just as Adam did not achieve them, when, upon receiving the deceitful encouragement of the serpent, he wished to become like God by means of his own way, and not the way which God showed him for his deification.
With these thoughts, beloved children in the Lord, we paternally encourage everyone to run well the race of the unblemished fast that lies before us. Let us endure well-equipped the labour of abstinence, and preserve our intellect from passionate thoughts. Let us cultivate brotherly
love. Let us put aside evil grudges. Let us mortify the body,subjecting it to the holy Services of Great Lent. Let us preserve our intellect healthy with long and intense prayer. "For through such sacrifices, God is well-pleased".
Let us not fear the endeavour. Let us not slacken the toil. The success does not belong to us, but to the divine grace that works in us. Having in this way such a cloud of surrounding Martyrs, Hierarchs and ascetic Fathers, let us look at the result of their company. Let us imitate their faith, patience and hope of our calling, namely the unsetting day of the holy Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, to Whom be the glory and the power to the ages. Amen.